Bringing religion back into public conversation

Last week I was somewhat surprised to find myself on a panel at a conference about immigration. The Caddanz conference is an annual one for academics and others working and researching in the immigration field. This year via the auspices of the Race Relations Commission the role of religion was a topic.

The “radical reverend” from Gosford, Australia, Rev Rod Bower was a keynote speaker and I was on a panel. Rod Bower is very vocal in Australia on the treatment of asylum seekers. Listen here to his sermon the Sunday he returned from NZ (posted 11 February 2018)

Rod said at the conference that religious freedom is one of the things that ensure our secular democracy. Religious leaders can hold governments to account and governments can hold religious institutions to account (as they have done with the sexual abuse inquiry in Australia).

True religious freedom does not discriminate he said, the trouble is though that some religions want the freedom to discriminate.


Our panel was asked to speak on the theme of peacemaking in our local communities.

My remarks follow:

Every Sunday at St Matthew’s and indeed at many churches around Aotearoa there is a moment right in the middle of the service called “The Peace”. I say to the congregation in English or te reo “The peace of Christ be with you” and we turn to those standing near us and shake hands using the same words – “peace be with you”.

This ritual action carries within it our desire to live as communities of peace. Jesus instructed his disciples to not to come to worship unless they were reconciled with their sisters and brothers. This greeting of peace was founded in the Jewish understanding of shalom – a deep peace of God, community, and people.

This peace is about individual relationships and about the wellbeing of our community and nation in a wider sense. Peace is not just an absence of conflict or war; peace is based in relationships of justice and equity.

St Matthew-in-the-City has tried to follow the teachings of Jesus about peace, in the way, over generations, it has advocated on issues of social justice. From the antinuclear movement and the anti apartheid movement in the 1980s to today’s issues of homelessness, the living wage, climate change and marriage equality, St Matthew’s folk have worked for change. They have marched and prayed and joined action groups. And then they come back together on a Sunday – to say “peace be with you”.

When St Matthew’s was founded as a faith community in 1843 it was a church of the neighbourhood. That part of Auckland was the poor side, the houses of the workers and shop keepers. From the 1970s to recent times we were surrounded by offices and no residents. Now a whole city of people has moved back in, and right next door. Our neighbours could not be more diverse, from so many cultures and ethnicities and languages and religions.  20,000 people were counted in the 2013 census living in the central city. In our half of the city centre 59 % are of Asian descent, covering many diverse cultures.

We relish now the opportunity that gives us to be a meeting point, a place of dialogue and conversation for our neighbours. Another of Jesus’ instructions to his disciples was to “love your neighbour” and we have a diversity of neighbours to love.

One of the really positive aspects of our new diversity of cultures in NZ is that the need to understand and respect religion is back on the agenda. The very fact that this panel and topic is included in this conference is something we would not have seen even ten years ago. Religion in NZ has been seen as a personal and private matter and as increasingly irrelevant in the public realm. Spirituality is seen as ok if the prayers are in te reo maori; beyond that we are a secular, practical nation with no need for an understanding of the mysteries of the spiritual or the religious or the divine. At best church goers are on a par with the players of badminton – ok if that’s what you’re into.

But our society is changing. Our increasing diversity of cultures are bringing with them a diversity of religion and so understanding each other and building peace together includes understanding and respecting our various religions. That is something we welcome and are glad to be a part of.

And so at St Matthew’s we continue to gather to “share the peace”; with people we may have never met before; homeless folk alongside people with high incomes; people of many nationalities and cultures; gay and straight; old and young; Christians, agnostics, atheists, people searching for a faith.

We discover each week that we gather that our strength is in our gathering as diverse people – as the whakatauki says:

Ehara taku toa, I te toa takitahi, Engari, he toa takitini.

Strength or success is not mine alone, our strength is in being together.


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